The Golden State Warriors had finished their early afternoon shooting drill and were repairing to the locker room to shower and dress. A few yards from the edge of the court, slouched down in the higher-priced seats at the Oakland Coliseum, Al Attles was answering his own question with a shrug. This is the time when basketball's two professional leagues select their respective rookies of the year, and the Golden State coach was wondering aloud what that really meant.
"I've never been sure just what they vote for," Attles said. "I mean, is it because a rookie is considered most valuable or most talented? Is he judged by statistics or by potential? Should he be measured by his accomplishments as an individual or by his contributions to a team? I think it should be a combination of all those things. It can't be easy, making the correct choice."
It won't be easy. There has been a rare abundance of outstanding first-year players in the NBA and ABA this season. "Give me all those rookies and three years to develop them, and you can have my whole ball club and the draft rights to my soul," says one NBA coach. At last count nine rookies were starting somewhat regularly in the 18-team NBA, nine in the 10-team ABA. The Spirits of St. Louis start rookies at both forward positions and at center, and they have the best rebounding front line in the ABA. The top offensive rebounder in each league is a first-year man. Atlanta and Seattle play with rookie-dominated lineups.
"They're all over the place," says K.C. Jones, coach of the Washington Bullets. "This is the best year I can recall. Well, I guess it's the best year since 1956 when Bill Russell, Willie Naulls and Tom Heinsohn came into the league. Almost every team is utilizing rookies."
"There are more good rookies playing now than any year I can remember," says Chicago Coach Dick Motta. "That is one reason the league is so topsy-turvy this season. Seattle plays a flock of rookies, which is why they can go out and run Boston off the court, then turn around and lose by 36 to Golden State playing without Rick Barry. Something has to explain why so many teams in the league are unpredictable."
"Predictable!" St. Louis President Harry Weltman says. "We start three rookies and have gone with as many as five. One night we look like the greatest team in pro basketball and the next two games we look like something out of the YMCA. One night we outrebounded Indiana 75-48 and lost. We also had 34 turnovers and allowed 26 steals."
As Motta says, it is just such freshmanesque brilliance and bobbles that have been the measure of both leagues all season. "That's why I don't count on rookies," he says. "We've got four here—Bob Wilson, Leon Benbow, Mickey Johnson and Cliff Pondexter—who would be right up there with the best in the league if they got to play."
At the moment the best in the NBA are probably Keith Wilkes of Golden State, John Drew of Atlanta, Leonard Gray of Seattle and Kansas City-Omaha's Scott Wedman. These four figure to be the leaders on the Rookie of the Year ballots.
But there is a ton of young talent no more than a step behind them: Brian Winters of the Lakers; Drew's teammates Tom Henderson and Mike Sojourner; Cleveland's Clarence (Foots) Walker and Campy Russell; Aaron James of the Jazz; Milwaukee's Gary Brokaw and Kevin Restani; Eric Money of Detroit; the Bullets' Leonard Robinson; Tommy Burleson, Rod Derline and Talvin Skinner, Gray's teammates at Seattle. And others.
"Like our Glenn McDonald and Kevin Stacom," says Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn. "Both could be super players, but we believe in working them into our pattern gradually."
Against such an imposing array the ABA counters with its own top rookies: Marvin Barnes of St. Louis, Utah's Moses Malone and Bobby Jones of Denver. Plus St. Louis' other young Spirits—Gus Gerard, Maurice Lucas, Fly Williams and Jimmy Foster; Denver's Jan van Breda Kolff; Virginia's David Vaughn; Billy Knight and Len Elmore at Indiana; and New York's Al Skinner.
"It's just too bad there can only be one Rookie of the Year award," says Barnes, the 6'9" forward who is not supposed to make mature statements. "Look at our league: me, Malone, Jones and Knight. I wish all four of us could get it because we all deserve it. But three guys are going to be disappointed. It's something every rookie wants. It says you're the best. Each in his own way has had a heck of a year. I'm really impressed with Moses. He's so young. Boy, if I was still 20, can you imagine all the trouble I'd be in?"
Barnes has had enough trouble at the age of 22. By his own admission he is immature and irresponsible—and he is impossible to stay angry at for any length of time. For some reason he has never been totally forgiven for saying before signing with St. Louis that maybe he'd rather work in a factory. Then, in late November, he left the club, claiming he was being ripped off and announcing that he wanted to renegotiate his $2.1 million contract. No way, said the Spirits. No play, no pay. A week later, after spending some time at a pool tournament in Dayton, Barnes returned, apologized and played. And how he has played.
"He's just a nice, irresponsible kid who can play great basketball," says Weltman, who once toured with a college all-star team that provided opposition for the Globetrotters. "He'd sure be a lot easier to deal with if he were surly. Then you wouldn't mind zinging him once in a while. But not Marvin. You can get angry at him, but when he walks in, you can't stay angry."
Ghetto-born and ghetto-bred, Barnes is, as Rod McKuen put it, making the morning last while buying up all the butterflies. He knows poor and now he knows rich, and has learned to live with almost as much gusto as he plays basketball. The only rookie All-Star starter, at last count he was scoring 24.0 points a game—fifth best in the league—and hauling down 15.6 rebounds, No. 3 in the ABA. He also leads the league in fines for swearing—which he says he has now forsworn—and for missing planes and being late to practice.
There was, for instance, the plane he missed for a game in Norfolk. Then he missed the next one. And so, at the cost of $800, Barnes chartered his own plane. Twenty minutes before the game he walked into the arena. With his uniform on. That night he scored 43 points.
"Marvin has had a great year," says Coach Bob MacKinnon, who believes in punctuality but is an understanding man. "He has had more to carry than any rookie in a lot of years. With all our rookies this is pretty much like an expansion team, and he has had to carry the club while adjusting to forward from center. He's extremely coachable. He just has to become more professional. If he breaks a rule, he is fined just like any other player."
He grinned at a recollection. "Freddie Lewis, who has been around for nine years, tried to take him in hand, and damn if Freddie didn't almost miss a plane, too."
Barnes grew up in South Providence, R.I., one of the country's smaller asphalt jungles, and was hardly into his teens when a close friend died in his arms with four bullets in his body.
"South Providence is a tough place," Barnes says. "The hustlers, the pimps, the junkies. I'm not ashamed of it. I just had it. I still go back to visit, but I don't want to live there." Basketball was the way out, except that at age 16, although Barnes stood 6'5" he weighed only 165 and didn't want to play. He thought he was too skinny.
"I saw him in a phys ed class, and forced him to come out for the team," says Jim Adams, his high school coach. "We had Marvin and a bunch of football players. They beat on him unmercifully. But he never complained. If he had, they would have got him outside. So he learned to fight back. He's been rough ever since."
An All-America at Providence College, Barnes came into the ABA at a strong 225 pounds and with quick hands, feet and mouth. "I guess I'm the Muhammad Ali of pro basketball," he says. One of his first moves was to buy a $35,000 silver Rolls-Royce. The press gave him a hard time about that.
"I'm the best and I should have the best," he popped off. Recently, however, he said, "A Rolls is the only car I know of that goes up in value. You pay $35,000 and you can sell it for $40,000. Is that dumb? Also, now my mother has a nice home, gets an allowance and doesn't owe anyone a dime. And if she needed money tomorrow, I'd sell the Rolls yesterday."
Barnes has the curious faculty of knowing where he stands—and simultaneously being able to enjoy it and rebel against it. He doesn't mind playing in the band, it's just that he wants to do an occasional solo to merrier music.
"What I am is 22 years old," he says, "and a 22-year-old kid ain't no genius. People forget how young I am. I still like to do wild things. They want to take my youth away. I'm a basketball player, not a monk. When I'm out having a good time they interpret that as not acting my age. What age? I want to be young. I enjoy it. I like to go out, mess around, be happy. I tell the owners, 'Look, I'm just an ordinary guy. With all that bread, who wants to live on bread and water?' They say, 'No, Marvin, you've got to grow up and be responsible for the whole franchise.' They know I'm immature. If I knew better I wouldn't do some of the things I do.
"Like jumping the club. That was bad. I listened to some bad advice. What do I know? It'-s tough being a star. I had to buy two alarm clocks and I've got to get better sleeping habits. O.K. But I don't want to act like an old man of 30 when I'm only 22. I figure the time to know how to act right is when you're old because you don't want to mess around anymore anyway. But they keep telling me, 'You can't make any mistakes, Marvin. Don't miss any more planes, Marvin. Drink your milk, Marvin. Eat your vegetables, Marvin.' Bunch of frustrated mothers. I suppose having all the responsibility thrust on me is a compliment. But it's a pain, too."
Golden State's Keith Wilkes is 21 and also a rookie. He is the son of a Baptist minister. The vehicle Wilkes owns is a Volkswagen van. He arrives early for practices and planes. He carries 190 pounds on a 6'6½" frame and when he came out of UCLA, where he played in the shadow of Bill Walton, they said he was too thin to make it in the pros. When Golden State made Wilkes its first-round pick some people thought management had gone mad. Now operating in a shadow once more—Rick Barry's this time—Wilkes is averaging 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds.
"You hear so much about today's younger generation and then you see Keith," says Attles. "He seems so in tune with life, so much more than most players. No one heads him into anything. He's the kind of youngster who can be part of a crowd but not be influenced by it. He's not going to do something just because everyone else is doing it."
Wilkes' progress in the pros was not easy. His first problem was that fans still appeared to resent his being the Warriors' first-round draft pick and his second was that backing up Barry, his break-in assignment, was a less-than-meaty chore. But before the season started two Golden State forwards (Cazzie Russell and Clyde Lee) went for various reasons to other teams and later a third, Derrek Dickey, was sidelined for a time with an injury. At that point Wilkes became a starter.
"Because of Walton a lot of people overlooked Keith's talent," says Attles. "He was a very fine but very unspectacular player. He's played under a lot of pressure and I think he's proved he has a great talent. And he has done it playing out of position at power forward. He really should be playing where Rick Barry is. He proved that when Rick was injured."
When Barry hurt his back several weeks ago Wilkes was shifted to the small forward position and was told that he now was the man. He responded with 25 points against Seattle, then scored 31 against the Lakers. When Barry returned, Wilkes went back to power forward, again in Barry's shadow.
"Playing with Rick isn't all that bad," says Wilkes. "I get a lot of open shots because of him. He's so great one-on-one, they all sag on him, leaving me open. And you learn a lot from Barry just watching him."
Says Attles, "Talking about that Rookie of the Year award. I don't know of any first-year player—and darn few veterans—who are making more of a contribution to any team. And a winning team. And he's just scratching the surface. You tend to forget he's a first-year man.
"The best thing is that he's not trying to be someone else. He's just trying to be the best player Keith Wilkes can be, and that's all you can ask."
"The award would be nice," says Wilkes, "but I don't get all wound up thinking about it. It's like when I came into the league—I didn't want to pressure myself. I had no expectations. I thought I could play to my satisfaction but I didn't know how long the transition would take." As it has turned out, it didn't take very long at all.
At Atlanta the transition of John Drew from college to the professional ranks took only the first 48 minutes of the season. That's the amount of time the 6'6", 205-pound 20-year-old from little Gardner-Webb needed to score 32 points against Chicago in the NBA opener. "He's got my vote as Rookie of the Year right now," said the Bulls' Chet Walker. "He's the best rookie I've seen in four years."
"One day early in the season we were watching a tape of one of the games we played last season," says Cotton Fitzsimmons, Drew's coach. "We were watching Lou Hudson put on one of his good moves. I heard clapping in the back of the room. It was Drew. Now in a game, some guy on the other team puts on a good move and John still applauds. He's really something."
At college—or, as Drew says, at Sweet Gardner-Webb—the big kid from the little high school in Beatrice, Ala. used to save clippings on major college basketball stars. People like Bill Walton. They were his idols. He was scoring only 25.9 points a game last year, just so-so for a guy who once scored 77 and 74 points in back-to-back high school games.
"If you haven't seen J.D. shoot, you wouldn't believe him," says teammate Dean Meminger. "He's one of the best offensive machines I've seen in pro basketball. He's incredible now and he's going to be unbelievable."
Last year as a sophomore Drew entered his name in the draft as a hardship case, and Atlanta took him in the second round, 24 players being selected ahead of him.
"He's been awed somewhat," says Fitzsimmons, "but nothing dampens his enthusiasm. He poked his finger in Walt Frazier's eye early in the season, and all he could say was, 'Isn't that something? I finally see Frazier up close, and all I can do is stick my finger in his eye!' Just wait until he learns how to play basketball. He'll really be something."
While learning the game Drew has been averaging 18.5 points and just under 11 rebounds. More importantly, a good percentage of his rebounds have come off the offensive boards: in fact, he has the most in the NBA. Over in the ABA, Moses Malone, Utah's rookie center, leads in offensive rebounds.
"To tell you the truth, and with humility," Drew says, "I have to admit that the greatest all-around player in the NBA today is John Drew. I loved my coach in college. I cried when I left. I'm a great player, but I'm great because I work at it. I say my prayers every night. It's something my grandmother taught me. I don't think I've missed three days in my life. If I had to sit here and watch myself I'd have to say, 'Man, he's in a class by himself, nobody can touch him.' Defense isn't easy. People who tell you they like it are lying. Man, I love to burn veterans and see them taken out of a game. Man, this life is super."
The rookies. Lord knows they can play the game. But they are also people like John Drew, who may be the only player in the world who could score on a jumper over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then ask him for his autograph. Or like Keith Wilkes, the 190-pound power forward who stands in no man's shadow off the court. Or Marvin Barnes, who says, "Every once in awhile I like to go back to South Providence, to the ghetto. I go to the playground, and the studs there look at me and say, 'Hey, punk, just because you're a pro doesn't mean I can't beat you.' And we go one-on-one, beating on each other like we always did. Beautiful."